Darwin’s First Theory: Exploring Charles Darwin’s Quest to Find a Theory of the Earth

Rob Wesson, USGS

Monday, April 15, 2019 at 10:30 AM

Location:
Building 3, Rambo Auditorium

Everybody knows―or thinks they know―Charles Darwin, the father of evolution and the man who altered the way we view our place in the world. But what most people do not know is that Darwin was on board the HMS Beagle as a geologist―on a mission to examine the land, not flora and fauna. Or about Darwin’s seminal role in demonstrating and exploring the ups and downs of the Earth’s crust, focusing on what we now call tectonics. This is the story told in Rob Wesson’s book, Darwin’s First Theory, and that he will share with us.

Retracing Darwin’s footsteps in South America and beyond, Rob trekked across the Andes, cruised waters charted by the Beagle, hunted for fossils in Uruguay and Argentina, and explored sites of long vanished glaciers in Scotland and Wales. As he followed Darwin’s path―literally and intellectually―he experienced the land as Darwin did, engaged with his observations, and tackled the same questions Darwin had about our ever-changing Earth.

Upon his return from his five-year journey aboard the Beagle, after examining the effects of earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, and more, Darwin conceived his theory of subsidence and uplift―his first theory. These concepts and attitudes―the vastness of time; the enormous cumulative impact of almost imperceptibly slow change; change as a constant feature of the environment―underlie Darwin’s subsequent discoveries in evolution. And this peculiar way of thinking remains vitally important today as we enter the human-dominated Anthropocene age.

The New York Times Book Review wrote that Rob’s book “dares, thank goodness, to work some of the rare Darwinian territory that is actually underexplored.” Nature described it as “a wonderful evocation of Darwin’s great theory of subsidence and uplift, the substrate of his later, explosive discovery of evolution.”

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